From McEwan's discussion about books that have helped shape his novels, with Alec Ash at FiveBooks:
What Science Offers the HumanitiesRead about another book McEwan mentioned.
by Edward Slingerland
Let’s start on your book selection. Your first choice is What Science Offers the Humanities, by Edward Slingerland. Tell us a little about the book first.
It’s a rather extraordinary and unusual book. It addresses some fundamental matters of interest to those of us whose education has been in the humanities. It’s a book that has received very little attention as far as I know, and deserves a lot more. Edward Slingerland’s own background is in Sinology. Most of us in the humanities carry about us a set of assumptions about what the mind is, or what the nature of knowledge is, without any regard to the discoveries and speculations within the biological sciences in the past 30 or 40 years. In part the book is an assault on the various assumptions and presumptions of postmodernism – and its constructivist notions of the mind.
Concepts that in neuroscience and cognitive psychology are now taken for granted – like the embodied mind – are alien to many in the humanities. And Slingerland addresses relativism, which is powerful and pervasive within the humanities. He wants to say that science is not just one more thought system, like religion; it has special, even primary, status because it’s derived from empiricism, or it’s predictive and coherent and does advance our understanding of the world. So rather than just accept at face value what some French philosopher invents about the mirror stage in infant development, Slingerland wants to show us where current understanding is, and where it’s developing, in fields such as cognition, or the relationship between empathy and our understanding on evil. Slingerland believes that there are orthodox views within the humanities which have been long abandoned by the sciences as untenable and contradictory.
I don’t need to ask what the influence on your novels is here, as science plays a big part in many of them – most noticeably in Solar, but also in Saturday and Enduring Love. What is the nature of your individual relationship, as a writer, with science?
I would like to inhabit a glorious mental space in which books like Slingerland’s would not need to be written. In other words – and this comes back to the notion of mental freedom – your average literary intellectual, just as much as your average research scientist, would take for granted a field of study in which the humanities and sciences were fluid, or lay along a spectrum of enquiry. This is the grand enlightenment dream of unified knowledge. If you think of the novel as an exploration or investigation into human nature, well, science undertakes a parallel pursuit. Of course, much science is concerned with the natural world, but increasingly it has invaded the territory of the novelist. Neuroscience routinely deals with issues not only of consciousness, but of memory, love, sorrow, and the nature of pain. I went to a fascinating lecture on revenge and the reward system by a German neuroscientist a few years ago.
I’m sometimes asked by a literary intellectual in an on-stage discussion – often through the medium of a puzzled frown – why I’m interested in science. As if I was being asked why I had a particular fascination for designs of differential gears in old Volkswagens, or car-parking regulations in Chicago in the 1940s. Science is simply organised human curiosity and we should all take part. It’s a matter of beauty. Just as we treasure beauty in our music and literature, so there’s beauty to be found in the exuberant invention of science.
McEwan's novels are on the lists of ten of the best honeymoons in literature, ten of the best scenes on London Underground, ten of the best visits to Venice in literature, ten of the best balloon flights, ten of the best prime ministers in fiction, and the top ten books about the Berlin Wall.